The Magnificent Jumbos – Elephants in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)

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Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Proboscidea

Family: Elephantidae

Genus: Elephas

Species: E. maximus

Subspecies: E. m. maximus

 

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant, and native to Sri Lanka. Since 1986, Elephas maximus has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. The species is pre-eminently threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.

The Sri Lankan elephant population is now largely restricted to the dry zone in the north, east and southeast of Sri Lanka. Elephants are present in Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park but also live outside protected areas. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. Human-elephant conflict is increasing due to conversion of elephant habitat to settlements and permanent cultivation.

The Sri Lankan elephant has smaller ears than the African elephant and the Sri Lankan elephant also has a more curved spine than the African elephant. Unlike the African elephants, the female Sri Lankan elephants very rarely have tusks, and if the female Sri Lankan elephant does have tusks, they are generally barely visible and can only be seen when the female Sri Lankan elephant opens her mouth. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies reaching a shoulder height of between 2 and 3.5 m (6.6 and 11.5 ft.), weigh between 2,000 and 5,500 kg (4,400 and 12,100 lb.), and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin color is darker than of indicus and of sumatranus with larger and more distinct patches of depigmentation on ears, face, trunk and belly.

The Sri Lankan elephant follows strict migration routes that are determined by the monsoon season. The eldest elephant of the Sri Lankan elephant herd is responsible for remembering the migration route of its Sri Lankan elephant herd. This Sri Lankan elephant migration generally takes place between the wet and dry seasons and problems arose when farms where built along the migratory routes of the Sri Lankan elephant herds, as the Sri Lankan elephants caused a great deal of destruction to the newly founded farmland.

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Sri Lankan elephants are herbivorous animals meaning that they only eat plants and plant matter in order to gain all of the nutrients that they need to survive. Sri Lankan elephants eat a wide variety of vegetation including grasses, leaves, shoots, barks, fruits, nuts and seeds. Sri Lankan elephants often use their long trunk to assist them in gathering food.

Female Sri Lankan elephants are generally able to breed by the time they are 10 years old, and give birth to a single Sri Lankan elephant calf after a 22 month gestation period. When the Sri Lankan elephant calf is first born, it weighs about 100 kg, and is cared for not only by its mother by also by other female Sri Lankan elephants in the herd (known as aunties). The infant Sri Lankan elephant remains with its mother until it is around 5 years old and gains its independence, with males often leaving the herd and female calves staying. The herd size in Sri Lanka ranges from 12-20 individuals or more. It is led by the oldest female, or matriarch. In Sri Lanka, herds have been reported to contain nursing units, consisting of lactating females and their young, and juvenile care units, containing females with juveniles. The boss lady, which is a female elephant is the leader of the heard and usually heard obeys her commands.

It is reported that at the beginning of the 19th century there were 19,500 wild elephants in Sri Lanka 100 years later and indiscriminate capture, hunting for ‘pleasure’ and the destruction of elephants as agricultural pests have catastrophically reduced the figure to just 2,000.There has also been a change in the distribution of elephant herds. Whereas previously healthy elephant populations existed across the island, today an increase in land utilized for agriculture has pushed the elephants into the drier regions in the south-west. The highly competent Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) has an effective and well-developed elephant policy that estimates that the remaining forests and National Parks could have a carrying capacity of between 4,000-5,000 elephants. Despite this, the biggest issue affecting Sri Lanka’s wild elephants is human-elephant conflict. According to the elephant census carried out in 2011 by the Wildlife Conservation Department, Sri Lanka is home to 5,879 elephants out of which 1,107 are babies and 122 are tuskers. However, centuries ago this island had been inhabited by oodles of elephants, but when we look at the current elephant population, we can understand the extent as to why they are endangered by today. Hence, conservation of these valuable animals is a sine qua non of time. And 2% carries the tusks in whole population.

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Meanwhile, in 2004 a rare albino elephant was for the first time spotted in Sri Lanka wandering in the Yala National Park, while this pale skinned jumbo was a member of a herd that comprised of about 17 elephants. The elephant has been sighted many times during the recent past. Albinism is a condition characterized by insufficient melanin production of the body. It is the melanin that gives colours to skin, hair and eyes. Albinism can be observed rarely among the animals, reptiles and birds due to various genetic reasons.

Sri Lanka has the best elephant conservation center which is The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is situated northwest of the town of Kegalle, halfway between the present capital Colombo and the ancient royal residence Kandy. It was established in 1975 by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Department in a 25 acre coconut property adjoining the Maha Oya River. The orphanage was originally founded in order to afford care and protection to the many orphaned Elephants found in the jungles of Sri Lanka.In 1978 the orphanage was taken over by the National Zoological Gardens from the Department of Wildlife. A captive breeding program was launched in 1982. Since the inception of the program over 20 elephants have been bred here. The aim of the orphanage is to simulate a natural habitat to these elephants. However, there are some exceptions: the elephants are taken to the river twice a day for a bath, and all the babies less than three years of age are still bottle fed by the mahouts and volunteers.

 

Human-Elephant conflict

The reduction and fragmentation of habitat has increasingly brought wild elephants in conflict with man. As food and water becomes scarce, the elephant population is forced to feed on cultivated land. The predation of the elephants has destroyed the livelihood of farmers and despite a general reverence for elephants in Sri Lankan culture, they have become increasingly viewed as pests.

The DWLC claims that in the last decade at least 1,369 elephants have been killed as a result of crop raiding; a huge percentage of the current estimated population of just double that figure. The elephants are not the only ones to have suffered, in the same period 536 humans have reportedly lost their lives. Annually 250+ elephant deaths recorded from island and along with 50+ human death due to elephant attacks.

There are 12 confirmed tusker death in between 2016-2018 and according to conservationists from 1980 to present 30 confirmed tuskers been killed for ivory and for  Gajamuthu, which is a myth that tuskers carries “Gajamuthu” in their tusks and these ivory was named for a high price by countries like China.

Domesticated Elephants in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a long history of domesticating elephants – back to the times when Sinhalese Kings kept them for military purposes and to enhance the majesty of their reign.

Today domesticated elephants are engaged in the following types of work,

  • Logging – particularly in forested areas
  • Construction – Historically elephants have played a big role in the construction of ancient historical cities. Today elephants are still used to carry steel, sand and other building materials.
  • Tourism – elephants are used to give tourists rides although this use is far less developed than that in Thailand. The elephant orphanage at Pinnawela operated by the National Zoological Gardens is also a big tourist attraction.
  • Ceremonies and Temple Work – Elephants participate in annual temple processions all over Sri Lanka. Often they are richly caparisoned and central to proceedings. Other elephants are permanently kept at temples as a status symbol. Often these poor animals are heavily chained and restricted in their movements.

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Domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka face difficulties finding useful and gainful employment. There are also serious concerns about a sharp decline in mahout skills and accusations of abuse and cruelty are commonplace.

The Captive Elephant Owners Association of Sri Lanka was formed in 1998 to bring owners together to address the many problems that Sri Lanka’s domesticated elephants face.

Written By

Rtr.Sethil Muhandiram

President 18-19 

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